By Kate Wiltrout
© October 29, 2011
Fort Monroe will take its place among the nation's most revered places
on Tuesday, when President Barack Obama is expected to designate much
of the former Army base a national park.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a phone interview
Saturday that Obama would use powers granted to him under the
Antiquities Act to preserve the Hampton waterfront fortress and
hundreds of acres of open space along the Chesapeake Bay.
More than a dozen presidents, starting with Theodore Roosevelt, have
used the 1906 act to protect historic or endangered places that loom
large in American lore, including the Grand Canyon and the Statue of
Fort Monroe, "a very unique and a very special place," will be the
396th national park in the United States, Salazar said.
The announcement delighted local and state officials and the region's
bipartisan congressional delegation, which introduced legislation to
create a national park but pressed Obama to use his executive powers
to make it happen more quickly.
Salazar said bipartisan backing for a national park, buttressed by
broad public support, helped persuade Obama to act. He also cited jobs
creation as a motivator for the president, saying that the money spent
by tourists who visit the park would create many jobs in coming years.
"It's a huge economic opportunity for southern Virginia," Salazar
said, noting that national parks draw tourists and attract businesses
that cater to them.
Fort Monroe's most historic chapter came during the Civil War, when it
remained a bastion of federal power even after Virginia seceded. Early
in the conflict, three escaped slaves reached the fort and asked for
the Union Army's protection. The commanding general's decision not to
send the men back to their Confederate owners set the stage for a mass
migration of slaves to Fort Monroe and helped bring about the
It will be a few months until the public sees evidence of the National
Park Service at the 565-acre post. Although ceremonially transferred
to Virginia on Sept. 15, the property had not yet legally reverted to
the state - a key detail in meeting the provisions of the Antiquities
Act, which permits the president to designate existing federal land as
a national monument.
Fort Monroe won't be only a national park, though. If the president
follows the blueprint of the pending legislation, the park service
would manage slightly more than half of the property, including the
north beach area and about 90 acres inside and around the moated stone
fortress. The Fort Monroe Authority, a state entity, would handle the
rest - including limited new development in certain areas.
State officials celebrated Salazar's news Saturday.
The recognition provides another tourism draw for the state and will
help enhance the economy by creating new jobs, Gov. Bob McDonnell said
in a statement praising the bipartisan cooperation that yielded this
"Our national parks tell the story of who we are as a country and a
people," McDonnell said. "Fort Monroe is an important chapter of that
story and long worthy of recognition and preservation."
The movement to make the fort into a national park started as a
grassroots effort after a federal base closing commission announced in
2005 that the Army would depart Fort Monroe in 2011.
The founders of Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park modeled their
vision on San Francisco's Presidio, a former Army base now managed
jointly by a trust and the National Park Service. They were initially
rebuffed by local and state officials. In 2008, the park service
concluded in a study it couldn't feasibly manage part or all of Fort
The local group refused to be deterred and continued to lobby
lawmakers, build public support, and send speakers to meetings about
the fort's future.
"We would not be here if it were not for Citizens for a Fort Monroe
National Park. They would not take 'no' for an answer," said authority
executive director Glenn Oder, who will represent Virginia at a
ceremony Tuesday in Washington to announce the designation.
Mark Perreault, president of the citizens group, gave credit to the
many parties who worked together to achieve consensus.
"I don't think if you look at all the other national parks, you'll
find one that came together quite this quickly," Perreault said. "So
many people came together around this and worked real hard for this.
Pilot writer Julian Walker contributed to this report.
Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629,